Mr. Anthony Dias Blue is both the editor in chief of the Tasting Panel Magazine and the executive director and founder of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. So he's unusually well-positioned to host a multi-city tour of a selection of the double-gold winners in the recent 2010 competition. We were lucky enough to get invitations to this invite-only event when it swung through Chicago on September 9th.
Approaching an event like this is a bit like getting invited to eat with the cool, rich kids in some kind of posh club. In this case, the setting was the Epic Restaurant in Chicago, a modern style bar with high, exposed ceilings, a second-story area featuring 15 foot windows looking down on Chicago, and more seating on the roof. Even at 1:00pm in the afternoon, slinky hostesses in black cocktail dresses roam the restaurant with bright smiles for the patrons: a perfect setting.
So where does that leave us? Well, did we shower? Check. Cologne applied? Check. Fly zipped? Check. Take a deep breath, go upstairs, taste some of the best stuff in the world, and socialize.
We were welcomed by Tasting Panel assistant executive editor Nicolette Teo and San Francisco World Spirits Competition managing director Chandler Moore. Guests were first offered wine glasses that were big enough to hold a pint (the larger bowl will actually allow a fuller aroma - think cognac glasses or brandy snifters), then a scoring sheet with all the wines and spirits selected for the tour, and invited to wander at will and pour for ourselves at the various stations where the bottles were waiting ("tasting pours, please!" Nicolette cautioned brightly). This was a great way to approach the spirit - no pressure, no press, no marketing, no one watching you. One just walks up, pours out some spirit, ingests it (and indeed, there were spit buckets liberally spread around the area and actually were in use), take notes and move on. Twenty-four wines and sixteen spirits were represented (though of the spirits there was one cognac, two calvados, and a pisco - fortified wines all). We, being who we are, went straight for the spirits and tried them all (no spit buckets for us). Our tasting notes are offered below for your reading (and if you're very lucky, your tasting) pleasure. But as it turned out, trying the spirits was just the first half of the event. Keep reading after the notes!
But first, the spirits themselves - each a double-gold winner in 2010.
- First up was the Isle of Jura Prophecy single malt scotch, which won the "Best in Show-Whiskey" in the 2010 competition. We'd been dying to try this very moderately priced ($70) scotch. The label acknowledges that it's "profoundly peated" and that's not an exaggeration. It's smoky and dry, dry as a desert wind in summer; Hillary Clinton has more sweetness in her. But the finish is marathon-long with lots of herbal tones. It's clear why this one made a name for itself in the competition... but it's a bit like the ascetic lecturer at the college: profound, yes; but party animal, no.
- Eschewing tradition in going from smoky aged spirits to white, we went for the Rökk Vodka next. A Swedish product that is freeze-distilled in the ancient tradition first used by the Poles. It had a nice aroma and absolutely no "needle" on the tongue. It was perfectly well-executed and competent... and so smooth it was close to boring. In a way, it was like watching Kobe Bryant or some other NBA shooter make a perfect free throw at the line: great mechanics, flawless, strangely unremarkable, yet critically important in the final score (or, dare we say, the cocktail).
- Sitting two stations away from the Rokk was Beefeater 24, a new specialty gin from the venerable Beefeater distillery and named Best Gin in the 2010 competition. It considers itself a London dry despite having green tea and other non-traditional botanicals and we agree: it's a classic, dry taste but with some overtones of fruit (the green tea?) that comes together rather nicely. Drinking this genuine gin with a winning personality is like meeting an old friend of the opposite sex with an attractive new haircut.
- There were two gins side-by-side and the second was - from of all places - a Romanian product Wembley Dry Gin which claims descent from an English recipe. In contrast with the Beefeater, it had a much sharper and more defined juniper aroma with a bit more oily mouthfeel on the front of the palate. The finish was equally sharp and quick. We felt it was quite the decent gin but were left a little mystified over the high score... for us, it was a bit like watching a great hockey player in the NHL: don't really get it, not really a fan (with apologies to the Chicago Blackhawks), but we understand that a lot of people think what's going on is very cool indeed. Regardless, it's a great gin at a great price ($12), which is one of the reasons to pay attention to competitions in the first place.
- Time to taste the last of the white spirits, which turned out to be a 100 proof (!) Dulce Vida Blanco tequila, which has exploded on to the scene in 2010 with the double gold from the 2010 competition as well as a 93pt score from the Beverage Testing Institute (it's currently in the 95th percentile on Proof66). This thing is powerful, powerful, powerful! Yet for being a 100 proof it sails down the throat - it's still a 100 proof and you're going to feel it - but the smoothness of that spirit for that proof is remarkable. In the words of one critic at the tasting, "It's like you can taste every leaf from the freaking plant all the way down" (forgiving for the moment that there are only pinas or hearts of the Blue Weber Agave in the spirit and no leaves). This tequila will always and everywhere stand out in the crowd - like watching a skater nail a triple axel or parachuting in to a rooftop party.
- Where are we now? Ah yes, the tequilas. On to the Tequila Blu Reposado tequila. This particular tequila (particularly after the 100 proof Dulce Vida) was quite refreshingly cool and almost minty. Exceptionally smooth without a hint of an alcoholic needle on the palate and then slides sinuously and sensationally down the throat. The payoff on this tequila is huge - it delivers exactly like a well-executed and delightful striptease.
- Why stop now? One of the two anejo tequilas was next with the surprising El Jimador anejo, which is available almost everywhere and part of the new Brown-Forman portfolio. They've had a great year with a "Best Anejo Tequila" finish from the 2010 competition as well as a platinum medal from the 2010 SIP Awards. And only $30! The tequila was surprisingly tasty with a buttery nature we sometimes associate with good rums. There is everything right and nothing wrong about this unassuming (and largely un-marketed) tequila. It's like going to the country and meeting the farmer's daughter and finding out she can rock the dance floor all night long at a bar where everyone drinks Coors beer at $1.50 a pint instead of $30 martinis.
- Finally we reach one of the grand surprises of the night: Vizcaya VXOP Cask 21 rum. There was a flock of tasters around this bottle when we showed up. The rum tasted so sweet and so smooth and so aromatic of nothing more than the purest maple syrup. Everyone said that they could have it at breakfast with no preparation. "I could pour this all over French toast in the morning!" exclaimed one taster. "The hell with the French toast!" responded another gaily, "Leave the toast out of it!" We agree! Seldom have we tasted a full-on 80 proof rum that was sweet and delicate enough to serve as a dessert cordial and breakfast adornment simultaneously. At $38 it's an outstanding buy... probably too sweet for some but belonging in almost every collection of rums. For the ladies, this rum is like the muscle-bound bodybuilder and for the guys, it's like the surgery-augmented bleach-blond ski-bunny: you've got to understand what you're getting into but if you like that kind of thing, you're going to be in heaven.
- We immediately followed up the Vizcaya with a much more traditional rum in the Ron Abuelo 12yr rum. In contrast to the Vizcaya, this rum was much more astringent and much more "oakey" in its aging. It probably would appeal a great deal to more traditional rum drinkers and serve up more subtly in sweeter cocktails like the mojito. Here we have the elder statesman rum: dignified, sophisticated, and completely old-school... the ultimate conservative's rum.
- Finally, there was one last tequila to try (in between the cognacs, wines, and calvados that we don't feel qualified to remark upon) which was the Cinco Blancos Anejo tequila, which has a remarkably consistent set of gold medal scores at the San Francisco competitions in the last 3 years; generally consistency like that signals a very high quality product. An exceptional bargain at $23. Perhaps because it was the end of the night, we found the tequila a bit soft for an anejo though it had some spicy notes that makes it perhaps a little bit devilish going down. Very interesting in the pantheon of tequilas. A bit like the really hot chick or dude at the bar that can be a little full of themselves in conversation.
The event was interesting if a tiny bit stuffy. In an atmosphere of spitting, swirling, and holding spirits to light it's hard to create amiability despite the fact that everyone we met was friendly. In speaking with Chandler Moore, the San Francisco competition seems to be doing quite well - we were informed that spirits submissions were up 17% this year making it one of their largest events ever. The participants there at Epic - ranging from distributors to press to judges - were very collegial with each other and interested in discussing the various merits and attributes of the spirits. While we personally missed getting to actually talk to the producers (as we did at the Madison Malt Society's Celebration of American Distilling) it was a great opportunity to talk to some of the folks who actually judge and run the competitions.
But it didn't end there. If the first half of the day was a bit stuffy, the Second Half more than made up for it...